Here is a sneak peek of my upcoming Imprints mystery series featuring Autumn Rain. Hope you enjoy!
With gloved fingers, I put the final Little People wooden character in the merry-go-round next to the schoolhouse and stood back to admire my handiwork before closing the case. I bought the black tea gloves off eBay by the dozens these days, a buck a pair. Their function was twofold—they kept body oils off my antiques, and they protected me from reliving the often-incapacitating emotions imprinted on their surfaces.
After temporarily losing my psychometry ability in early May, a little over a month ago, I was careful to avoid as many casual imprints as I could. I still checked everything I put in my store to make sure any imprints they contained were positive, or at least neutral, but after that I limited contact, even with the good ones that usually made me feel revitalized. I was still healing from my mental blindness, and according to Dr. Easton Godfrey, a self-proclaimed expert in psychometry, reading any imprint was effort and could delay my progress.
Not that I’d been called on to read much of anything this past month since taking down the mobster Frank O’Donald. Truthfully, those events still had me looking over my shoulder, even though he was dead and all of his top people were in jail. I wasn’t too upset that most people coming into my antiques shop carrying objects for me to read only wanted to know if their husbands were cheating or if their bosses were thinking of giving them a promotion.
Friday afternoons at Autumn’s Antiques were always slow, and today only two customers, a blond-haired woman and a young boy, were browsing the shelves that held the music boxes. As I moved away from the Fisher-Price case, the woman left her son and approached me.
“May I help you?” I asked.
“Yes.” She leaned toward me confidentially, lowering her voice. “I’m here with my little boy. He insisted on coming. It’s my birthday soon, and I think he wants to buy me something special. I’ve tried to show him a few things, but . . .” She glanced at the child, who had moved from the music boxes and now had his nose pressed up against a case containing antique metal cars. “He doesn’t want me around while he chooses, but if you could please steer him to something that isn’t expensive? He’s been working so hard the past year doing odd jobs for my father-in-law. We’re living with my in-laws, you see, while my husband and I finish school.” A frown marred her perfect heart-shaped face, and the bleakness of her tone made me wonder if there was trouble at home. “Anyway, he’s a generous kid, but I’d like him to save for something he wants, not spend it all on me.”
“I’m glad to help,” I said. “Is there a certain limit you had in mind?”
Red stained the woman’s pale cheeks. “I don’t really know how much he has, but maybe around ten or twenty dollars?” She gave a self-deprecating chuckle. “Not much in here for that, I know. But there’s a little pewter jewelry box that I like. My wedding ring would fit in it nicely.”
I knew the piece immediately. It had belonged to an old woman before her death, given to her by a long-dead beau. The tender imprinted memories from both of them, though fading, had made me tear up the first time I’d held it.
“I’ll do my best,” I said. “Are you going to wait outside or in another part of the store?”
She smiled. “I think I’ll go next door to that herb shop. Since they have the adjoining door, I can peek in on him, and they have some black licorice Kylan really loves.” For the first time, her gaze went to my bare feet and then away again as quickly. If she thought it strange that a full-grown woman chose to go around barefoot, she was polite enough not to comment.
“I love that licorice too,” I said, giving her a smile. “Go ahead. I’ll help Kylan.”
“Thank you. I’m sure that right now he’s nowhere near what he intends to buy.” She glanced around at the boy, who was staring hard at her. “See? He’s waiting for me to leave.”
“Then you’d better go,” I said with a laugh.
After another glance at my feet, she disappeared through the double doors connecting my store with the Herb Shoppe that had once belonged to my father, Winter Rain, but now belonged to my best friend, Jake Ryan. Or my formerly-best-friend-turned-boyfriend-then-turned-friend-again Jake. We were finding our way back to friendship since my engagement to a local homicide detective and Jake’s subsequent meeting of his current girlfriend, but it was sometimes awkward. I missed the old days of being regular best friends.
Since my store was dead, our shared full-time employee, Thera Brinker, was selling herbs in Jake’s shop, and our part-time helper, Jazzy Storm, aka Jessica Sandstrom, who I’d recently put over my online sales, was off today. That left just Kylan and me.
The minute his mother vanished, the boy rushed over. He was a pretty child, with his mother’s blond hair and an appealing round face. His expression was somber, though, and he didn’t smile as he approached. He wore a T-shirt, faded jeans, and worn tennis shoes. A black backpack with frayed trim hung over one shoulder.
“I need your help,” he said, his gaze flicking past me to the Little People display with unveiled disinterest. Not even the nineteen seventy-four castle with the turquoise flag caught his attention, and it was everyone’s favorite.
“Would you like to see something?” I asked the boy, reaching in my dress pocket for the keys. “You were looking at the cars, right?” Recently, I’d taken to locking small items in cases, an action my adoptive parents, diehard flower children, would have decried.
“I don’t want to buy anything right now,” he said, which surprised me.
“Oh, okay. How can I help you then?”
He glanced toward the doors leading into the Herb Shoppe and then around my store. When he was sure no one was watching, the boy shrugged off his backpack, unzipped it, and pulled out a decidedly wrinkled white sheet of paper.
“It’s about this,” he said, shoving it at me. “I need your help.”
I knew the article the moment I saw it—the one that talked about me solving a murder at a local theatrical company. While I’d been careful to keep my connection to the recent mobster incident from the paper, this was out on the Internet for anyone to see. But Kylan couldn’t be more than nine or ten. What was he doing reading online newspapers? Kids were supposed to be addicted to games these days, not keeping up on current events.
“You need me to read something for you?” I guessed.
He nodded solemnly. “Is it free like it says?”
I removed my gloves, tucking them into my pocket. “Yes.” I usually encouraged people to buy something they loved from my store after using my special services, but he didn’t need to know that. “Come on over to the counter.”
He followed me to the back of my store, where I slipped behind the counter and sat on my tall stool. Sitting when reading imprints was always the best idea, just in case, though what he’d brought couldn’t be all that serious.
“How come your eyes are different colors?” he asked, studying me. He pointed to my left eye. That’s one’s blue, but the other is, uh . . .”
“Hazel. I was born that way. It’s called heterochromia.” In my case, it was hereditary, a condition I shared with my biological father and my twin sister.
“Oh.” Setting his backpack on the floor, Kylan bent over, nearly disappearing from my sight. Seconds later, he brought out an old chest about eight inches long, holding it carefully with both hands. He hefted it onto the counter. “This is my treasure chest. I put all my money in here. I was saving for something special—for my mom’s birthday.” His gaze again strayed briefly toward the Herb Shoppe before coming back to me.
“That’s great,” I said. The cherry-stained wood chest wasn’t anything special, antique-wise, but I could see why the boy liked it. The rounded top and the black hasp reminded me of pirates and hidden treasure. There was a place for a padlock, though he didn’t seem to have one.
“No, it’s not great.” He frowned, and moisture glinted in his eyes. Brown eyes, I noted. Deep brown, though I was sure his mother’s eyes were blue. He opened the chest and turned it around so I could see into it. “Because it’s gone. All of it except some coins.”
Inside the chest were a few folded pieces of paper, a dirty string, a crystal-shaped object that had likely been a pull to a set of blinds, a small ball, and a handful of change. Not one bill of any denomination in sight.
“I had seventy-six dollars,” Kylan said, blinking back tears. “I’ve been mowing my grandpa’s lawn and cleaning out my neighbor’s birdcage for a year and a half to get that money. Whoever took it also took my silver dollars.” He paused and added hurriedly, “They weren’t real silver, but sometimes my neighbor pays me that way. I like the big coins. They’re cool. So can you tell me who took my money? I gotta get it back, and I can’t tell my mom because she already has too much stress.”
I wanted to assure him that I could find his culprit, but if whoever had taken his money hadn’t left an imprint on the chest, I wouldn’t be able to help him at all.
“I’ll certainly try,” I said.
Not even that brought a hint of a smile to the child’s cherubic face. Instead, he nodded solemnly. “Thank you.”
“A few questions first,” I said. Getting background would help me understand any imprints I’d read. “Where do you normally keep the chest?”
“Under my bed. But everyone knows I have it.”
He bent back over until I could only see the top of his head. The next minute, he showed me a tiny notebook and a pencil covered with little cars. He stretched his arms out over the counter and opened the notebook to a page, tapping it with his pencil. “I wrote it all down—all the suspects. But I don’t think any of them would take it.”
I bent over to read the column of words that had been printed in surprisingly good penmanship: “mom, dad, aunt, cousin, grandma, grandpa.”
“My cousin is too small to get it out,” Kylan said. “She’s only one, and she’s afraid of going under the bed.”
“What about friends?”
He shook his head. “They spend all their money on candy, and they’d want to spend mine, so I don’t tell them anything. I think it must be a robber.”
“Is anything else in the house missing?”
“I don’t think so. But it’s a lot of money, so maybe that’s all they wanted.”
His innocence was endearing. “Maybe. Why don’t I give it a try?” I removed the ring Shannon had given me a month ago to mark our engagement. It was set with small stones of two alternating colors, our birthstones, and so far the only imprints on it were positive ones from Shannon. I didn’t usually imprint on most items, but removing the ring would prevent any chance of that happening.
As I reached for the sides of the chest, I could feel the tingling that indicated a strong imprint. Not at all surprising. Imprints are almost always left on objects people treasure or commonly use. I let my hands touch the wood, exactly where I imagined someone might grab and pull it out from under the bed. As always, the boy’s most recent imprint came first. Emotion took over, filling me as if I had lived the moment with Kylan. As if I were Kylan.
I clenched my teeth with determination. I was going to find who took my money. The lady at the old-things store would help. She had to.
When reading imprints, I always envisioned an imaginary calendar that highlighted the day and time of the event. If the imprint was older than a couple months, exact times were harder to pinpoint, but an approximate date was usually enough. This imprint had been left on the chest earlier today.
A second imprint followed the first, coming from only two days ago, an imprint that made me feel as if my heart had been ripped from my body.
Tears wet my face. I couldn’t breathe except in tiny gasps. It was all gone! Who had taken it? Who was so mean? I wanted to scream and yell and kick the door. I could never earn that much again. Not in time.
“Now I can’t get Mom something nice,” I whispered between sobs. It was all gone.
The part of me that remembered I was Autumn Rain sympathized with the child. I remembered too well the days that seventy-six dollars might have stood between me and foreclosure on my shop.
Then came the imprint I’d been hoping for, left on the chest just under two weeks ago.
I peered into the chest. As expected, the bills were there, all neatly stacked inside a rubber band, except for the last few scattered on top. I’d borrow the money for a few weeks like the last time. I’d get paid the Saturday before his mother’s birthday—that was plenty of time in case he decided to buy her something. The kid probably wouldn’t notice. The bills on top had to mean that the last time he’d slipped money inside, he hadn’t even taken the chest from under the bed. No one would ever know I borrowed it or what I bought.
The imprint vanished as whoever was holding the chest set it down to take the small stack of bills that must have seemed like a fortune to this little boy standing in front of my counter. Kylan was right; someone had stolen his money. Someone who knew him.
Next came a more faded emotion. Satisfaction as one chubby hand opened the rounded chest top and placed a wrinkled bill on top of the others.
There were more similar faded imprints, but when the first imprint began to repeat, I knew I’d seen all there was.
“Good news,” I said, removing my hands. “I can’t tell you who took your money because I didn’t see them or even their hands, but I can tell you it was someone you know. They borrowed your money and planned to return it before your mother’s birthday.”
It was a mean thing to do, but adults didn’t always treat children with the same respect they afforded others.
Kylan’s eyes widened. “Really? That’s great!” A line appeared between his brow. “I mean, they shouldn’t take it without asking, but I’m glad they’re going to put it back.” He sounded hopeful now.
I hesitated before saying, “You might consider getting a lock for your chest.” If the person had taken his money before, it was likely he or she would do it again.
“That’s a good idea. But I should wait until they put it back.”
I grinned. “I think that’s best.”
Setting his notebook and pencil on the counter near my cash register, he shut the chest and stowed it in his backpack. Then he grabbed his notebook and turned in the direction of the connecting doors to the Herb Shoppe.
“It wasn’t your mother,” I called after him as I slid my ring back onto my finger.
He stopped and turned around. “I knew that,” he said with the first smile I’d seen. “My mom would never do that. She knows how hard it is to earn money because she works and goes to school. She’s so tired at night that sometimes she falls asleep before she can read her half of our story. That’s why I want to get her something special.”
“What are you going to get her?” After all that, I was curious.
He glanced toward my section of jewelry boxes. “It’s over there. Do you want to see? I’m not sure how I’ll get her to bring me back here, but maybe dad will, or my grandma.”
I joined the boy from behind the counter, and together we walked over to the music boxes. These were on shelves instead of in cases. Currently, I had twenty jewelry boxes, eleven of which played music. Three of those had little ballerinas.
To my surprise, he continued past the jewelry boxes to the handheld mirrors in the case beyond that. He pointed at an ornate, silver-plated Victorian mirror. The piece was lovely, but at eighty-five dollars, it was the most expensive of all my handheld mirrors.
“I’m sure I can earn nine more dollars before my mother’s birthday,” he said. “Do you think it will still be here?”
“What if I save it for you? If you decide to get her something else, go ahead and get it, though. I can always sell it later to someone else.”
“Oh, I want it,” he assured me. “She says it reminds her of the mirror in Beauty and the Beast.”
I laughed. “That’s what I thought when I found it.” The piece had beckoned to me at an estate sale of a woman who had passed away after a very long and apparently satisfying life. She’d looked in the mirror each day, but instead of being upset at the passing years, she’d taken joy in her memories.
I put on my gloves, opened the case with my keys, and removed the mirror. “It’s a deal,” I said. “I’ll keep it in the back for you.”
He started walking away but hadn’t gone far when he stopped to say, “Thank you.”
I didn’t think Kylan would be back, but if he did return any time in the next two weeks, the mirror would be waiting for him. And for that show of politeness, I’d even give him a discount.
It bothered me that someone, probably a member of his family, would steal his money when the child would have most likely been willing to lend it to them. Why take it without permission? Or why not borrow the funds from an adult instead? Maybe whoever had stolen the money had something more to hide than simply taking the cash. Had I missed something important?
Well, the situation was out of my hands now. A glance at the clock told me it was almost lunchtime. My fiancé, Detective Shannon Martin, would be here soon to take me out for a late lunch. Our relationship was new and a little nerve-racking, but as long as we could figure out a way to let each other be who we really were, I was hopeful it would work out.
Both my fiancé, Shannon, and my friend Jake were charter members in the Autumn Needs to be More Careful Club, but at a time when I’d decided to quit reading imprints altogether, it had been Shannon who made me see that I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t use my gift to help others—even if that put me in danger. Maybe he understood because his job as a homicide detective was also dangerous at times, but being a detective was who he was.
Jake, on the other hand, had gone from supportive to actively wishing I wouldn’t try to solve anything more serious than a misplaced set of keys. He would applaud using my gift for Kylan.
I had barely stowed the mirror and locked my day’s receipts into the safe under my counter when the electronic bells above my outer door rang, a deeper sound than the real jingle bells Jake kept above his door in the Herb Shoppe. Shannon was coming through my single outer door, and behind him I caught a glimpse of Kylan and his mother out on the sidewalk, probably heading home after leaving Jake’s with the licorice.
“Hey,” Shannon. He was thirty-six, only a few inches taller than I was, and broad-shouldered, his compact movements undeniably graceful. His hair was that color between brown and blond, streaked with lighter blond from his time in the sun at work and on the acre of land he owned on the outskirts of Portland. His hair was slightly curling at the ends as it always did when it grew longer than police bureau regulations. As a detective, he usually wore a suit to work, sans tie, but he must have left his jacket in the car, and probably his under-the-arm holster and gun as well.
“I’m just about ready.” I let him come to me at the counter as I put away a few items, removed my gloves, and retrieved my purse. I’d worn a floor-length sleeveless summer dress today so my going barefoot wouldn’t be too noticeable wherever Shannon would end up taking me. He was man enough to endure my eccentricities, but I didn’t feel the need to flaunt them.
Shannon’s arms came around me, and I turned into him, breathing in the faint aroma of aftershave and coffee. His eyes captured mine. There was something in the green-blue color and the heavy frame of light brown lashes that made them compelling and the most beautiful I’d ever seen. I especially liked the way his skin prematurely crinkled at the edges. He kissed me for a long, satisfying moment before drawing away with a little sigh. His face was clean-shaven today, and while I preferred the rougher look of a few days’ beard growth, kissing him freshly shaven was a lot kinder on my skin.
“I’m thinking pasta,” he said, releasing me.
“You’re always thinking pasta.”
He leaned over and nibbled my ear. “Not always.”
I laughed. “We can have pasta, but they’d better have something on the organic side.” I leaned over to dig through an organizer I kept on one of the under-counter shelves, looking for a pen. “Let me just write a note to Jazzy and Thera. I need to see if they can work more hours next week. My sister is a nervous wreck with her parents coming from Kansas, and I’ll have to be on hand occasionally to run interference.”
Shannon groaned. “Does this mean I’ll have to endure dinners and endless polite conversation?”
“Only if you still want to be my fiancé,” I said with a laugh. “Tawnia’s my sister, and that means her adoptive parents are going to be in the picture for most of our lives, even at a distance.” I’d met the couple once before at their own home soon after learning I had a sister, and they’d been kind and welcoming. I wasn’t sure why Tawnia was so nervous. “Now, where did my pen go?” Apparently, it was time to order new ones.
“Will this do?” Shannon said, holding up a pencil with a grin. The pencil was covered with little cars.
“Oh,” I said, frowning. “He left it.”
“A little boy. He wanted to see if I could find out who took his money. He was using the pencil to write down suspects.”
Shannon laughed. “Smart little kid.”
“Yeah. I’ll keep it for him in case he comes back.” Before I could reach for the pencil, my electronic bells jangled again.
Shannon and I both looked toward the outer door as a muscled man pushed into the shop. The first thing I noticed about him was the myriad of colorful tattoos covering the exposed parts of his chest, neck, and huge arms, which were set off perfectly by his sleeveless black biker vest. The second thing that popped out at me was that everything about him—except the vibrant tattoos—looked sad and dragging. His greasy, dishwater-blond hair was cut short, but his mustache drooped to cover his mouth, and his gray-streaked beard sagged limply to his chest. His eyebrows were so long that they looked like caterpillars over his sad, stricken eyes. Ignoring my antiques, he strode directly to the counter, a paper in his hands.
“Hello,” I said. “Can I help you?”
He set the paper on my counter, and I saw it was the same Internet article little Kylan had shown me. “Are you Autumn Rain, the psychic lady?”
I stifled a sigh. I didn’t like being called a psychic because I couldn’t see the future or things that were happening at the moment. I could only read emotions that other people left on certain objects. But people persisted in using the psychic moniker no matter what I said, so I bit back a protest.
“I’m Autumn Rain. How can I help?”
“My wife’s gone missing,” he said urgently. “I looked for her all night and all morning. Everywhere I can think of. She’s nowhere, and it ain’t like her.” He patted a black leather bag strapped to his upper thigh over his jeans. “I brought some of her stuff. Will you take a look?” A world of despair radiated in his tone, as if at any moment, this tough man might break down into tears.
“Sure.” I sent an apologetic glance at Shannon. Maybe this would teach him not to be late for our lunch dates.
“Have you gone to the police?” Shannon asked, setting Kylan’s car pencil down next to my cash register.
The biker’s gaze flicked over Shannon, taking in his dress pants and shirt. Could he tell Shannon was a cop? “I went this morning. They took my report, and I gave them a list of friends and relatives. But they haven’t called me back or come out to the house yet. They told me she’d probably come home on her own and to call all her friends to see if they’ve heard from her. No one has.” The sound of laughter came from Jake’s store as if in counterpoint to the biker’s despair.
“How long has she been gone?” I put my heel on the metal support ring of my stool and lifted myself onto it.
“Only since last night,” he said. “But we’re supposed to go on a trip tomorrow for our seventh anniversary. Today’s when we were gonna finalize our route. We’re heading to California like we did for our honeymoon. It ain’t like her to disappear.”
Shannon started to speak, but I gave him a hard stare. This was my case, not his. “Tell me when you first realized she was gone,” I said.
The biker’s expression wilted. “I was late getting off work last night and stopped to have a beer with my work buddies. When I came home, she wasn’t there. I wasn’t even more than an hour and a half late, maybe two tops.”
“Was she okay with you going out with your friends?”
He shrugged. “She don’t mind if I go out and have a beer. Long as I don’t come home drunk.”
Silence fell over us as I considered what to ask next. I was aware of Shannon watching and waiting, not impatiently but intently. Before working homicide, he’d been in missing persons, and we’d discussed his past cases enough that I knew he was thinking the same thing I was—that the woman might have more against the biker’s co-workers than he knew. Maybe she’d been angry and had gone somewhere to cool off. If that was the case, it shouldn’t take long to discover where she was, as long as he’d brought the right objects.
“Is anything missing?” I asked. “Clothes, suitcases, purse, car?”
“No. That’s just it. Nothing is gone except her bike—her Harley—though how that’s gone when I have both sets of keys, mine and hers, I don’t know. She just disappeared.”
“No money missing from your accounts?” I asked next, knowing Shannon was burning to voice the question. He believed money was the root of most marital problems, and maybe he was right.
“No. Uh, I don’t know.” The biker’s brow creased. “I can check. We set up our phones for electronic banking.” He pulled out a phone and began to punch numbers with large, clumsy fingers. “Nope. It all looks the same as when I made sure my check was put in.”
“There haven’t been any charges since yesterday?”
He looked again. “Just gas for my bike.”
“Okay, let me see what you brought.” I patted the countertop.
“Oh, right.” He unzipped the bag on his leg and withdrew a cell phone, a set of keys, a deck of face cards, and a tube of lip cream. “Sariah never goes anywhere without this stuff.”
“She didn’t take her phone?” That seemed unusual, to say the least, and for the first time, a twinge of apprehension filled me. Even I always took my phone with me, despite my adoptive father’s insistence that the emissions caused cancer.
I pushed back that thought before it could overwhelm me. Winter was gone now, and his death had nothing to do with any kind of emissions.
“No,” the biker said. “And she loves playing one game or another at stops while we’re on the road, so that makes me more worried. If she went to a friend’s house—and none of them admit that she has—she wouldn’t have left her phone or her lip stuff.” He gave me a completely serious look and added, “Sariah kind of has dry lips, especially on the road, so she don’t want to get a cold sore.”
That was the moment I knew I had a serious case. Not because of the phone, the keys, or the mysteriously missing motorbike. But because of the lip cream. In an abusive situation, a woman might leave behind her clothes, her phone, and her vehicle, but if she was prone to cold sores, she’d slip that tiny tube of lip cream into her pocket.
Wherever this man’s wife was, I didn’t believe she’d left willingly.
Copyright 2019 Teyla Rachel Branton
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